Here’s the second in our series of occasional insights into what new lecturers face, feel and react to at key times in their first year at college. We follow a music teacher during his first full term.
A lot’s happened, everyone’s exhausted before Christmas, but it’s been mostly positive. I’ve really liked working with older higher education (HE) students and being called by my first name rather than ‘sir’ - I previously taught in a secondary school.
One challenge for me this term was making good what had gone wrong last year. Just after half-term I was marking some HE essays and couldn’t believe how badly written they were. So I decided to include substantial advice in my marking on how to improve the standard. Straight advice, nothing rude. I simply pointed out paragraphs or sentences that didn’t make sense and showed them how to rewrite them.
To my surprise, the students complained to my manager about my comments. I was a bit confused as I’d genuinely been trying to help. I met my manager who said the students had never had so much feedback before and it had freaked them out, that this year’s cohort was not very strong and such reaction was not uncommon - students often got very little training in academic skills at FE level so entered HE at a disadvantage.
The students had not been previously picked up on their poor writing. My manager suggested I lower the bar and mark strictly in line with the exam board’s basic learning outcome criteria rather than provide precise instructions. It was a huge relief when he looked at how I’d marked to see if I had been a bit harsh. He told me it was the best marking he’d ever seen - I’d been very, very fair!
What he didn’t say was that English is not my first language and I think the students might have been questioning why I was teaching them how to write. My intention was good, though - since coming to the UK, I have had many difficulties with English at school and university, so I wanted my students to write properly.
Many students struggle to write well yet don’t realise how badly they are writing, they assume they are okay, whether it be in presentation, syntax or spelling. But unless you work with someone who can write better than you, you’ll never realise how good or bad your own writing is. Reaching a good standard of writing can take a life-time - even when penning my own PhD thesis, I had to correct many things.
Fortunately, the above incident has been a rare negative in an otherwise good term. One of my level 3 students walked out of my class one day saying, rather unconvincingly, that she had a doctor’s appointment. I mentioned this to my manager who then rang the student’s parents; they promptly told her off and in the following week the student apologised to me and we have had a really good relationship ever since. She doesn’t argue and I don’t reprimand - I’m much more relaxed.
I guess I’m slowly getting used to my college’s culture and what's expected in terms of working relationships. At the end of the day, if a student doesn’t do their work it’s their fault. With my school-teaching background I’d always been worried that management would haul me up if I didn’t monitor performance properly. At college I’ve realised it’s the course leader’s responsibility to make sure work is completed. Maybe I’ve been taking this aspect of the job a bit too seriously?
But I have made a difference to the writing of new level 4 students because I have been teaching them from the start of their course. I set out my expectations on writing at the beginning of term and have closely monitored their efforts. I’ve shown them how to rephrase things properly, and present graphs and pictures in their essays and so on. It’s a minor thing but it’s made me feel really happy - I’ve already seen writing improvements among some of the more able students.
And as a music lecturer and performer, I’ve been told by colleagues that my coaching of students to participate and perform in gigs and concerts - and, if invited, my performing with them as a professional percussionist - has increased student participation across the department.
The drumming/percussion demos I performed in class to break the ice at the start of term have had a positive impact - some students are now asking me to perform on tracks they are writing. I’m very pleased to help out and they really respect me for that. I’m able to support them as a musician, not just as a teacher.
What’s surprising is that it’s all happened unconsciously - I never planned to emphasise performance or writing skills in my teaching so it’s been great to get such feedback
In fact, I’ve been surrounded by some incredibly helpful, kind people who are easy to work because like myself they are also all working musicians or professional music engineers. I see them as much more than just teachers but as musicians sharing the same identity and community with me.
I’m also beginning to see myself as more of a mentor than teacher, particularly to my level 4 cohort. I can teach them certain topics but in HE they need to move beyond taking in facts. When I teach them theoretical things about the music industry, I can give them ideas but there are no right or wrong answers; it’s all about how they justify their own answers.
At level 3, I have to provide direct answers and have been surprised by students’ lack of knowledge of how to complete certain basic research and writing tasks. But at the same time I realise I’ve forgotten how long it’s taken me to develop my own research skills.
Workload has been heavy. I don’t think anyone is happy with the timetables - they seem almost illegal! I sometimes get just 15 minutes’ break a day. But because many lecturers are hired on a day-to-day basis, the college can’t juggle timetables around. In fact, my manager tells me we can always take a break when we need to. It’s not like school when the bell rings at 9am and you all start at once. It’s also extra hard in your first year . . . but easier next year when you repeat the syllabus.
I guess what I’ve enjoyed most has been cooperating with and performing with students. As for general advice based on what’s worked for me so far, I’d say prepare a lot for lessons before starting but also expect to step back and be patient because so many students start out with a low level of ability in certain areas. Try to observe college culture first and then slowly start doing your own job.
This term on top of teaching (HE) levels 4-5 I’ve been mentoring 10 level 4 students and five level 5s. I also teach about 50 level 3 learners. I’m now more relaxed about not being able to help those few HE students who don’t turn up very often. My manager says he’s not overly concerned as long as they complete their work properly at some point in time. They are paying customers and have chosen to study, after all.
Regardless, I will continue to use negative reinforcement when I need to. I tell them: “If you withdraw from this course it will cost you half of what you have paid; you won’t get the money back. I won’t be able to support you if you don’t keep up your work, and you won’t pass the course.” When I say that, they seem to come back to me quite quickly.
For positive reinforcement, I tell them they are great students and it’s really good to work with them - they have the potential to be great musicians but they have to give 100% to get there. I tell them about my own career and how competitive the music industry is. I let them say whatever they want to, they get tired and then I say what I need to say. It seems to work!